Opinion: we need a 21st century fix to 1960s public housing

By Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells

Tuesday July 14, 2020

Volunteers scramble to organise food and personal hygiene supplies at the Australian Muslim Social Services Agency in North Melbourne, Monday, July 6, 2020. (AAP Image/James Ross)

Last weekend, Victoria took the unprecedented step of locking down nine public housing towers in an effort to stem the spread COVID-19. The lockdown has shone a glaring light on the state of public housing in Australia. Where did the towers come from, what do they represent, and where are they going?

During the 1920s and 1930s, social reformer Oswald Barnet campaigned against urban poverty. His masters thesis at the University of Melbourne examined ‘The Economics of the Slums’. In 1935, Country Party Leader Albert Dunstan became Premier of Victoria (with the support of the Australian Labor Party). One of Dunstan’s first acts was to establish the Slum Abolition Committee (SAC), inspired by Barnet. SAC was the precursor to the Housing Commission of Victoria, created with the passing of the Housing Act 1937.

In 1946, the year after the Chifley Labor government first granted funding to the states for the provision of housing, the former Commonwealth Tank Factory in Holmesglen was transformed into the ‘Housing Factory’; the semi-permanent shanty towns of inner Melbourne were torn down; and space was made for new modes of building and living.

Liberal Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies inherited many of the post-war stimulus measures, including the FX Holden, the Snowy Mountains scheme, mass migration and investment in public housing. The Housing Commission was keen to produce the largest number of houses at the lowest cost. In the 1960s construction boom, naturally post-war prefab was the way to go.

In the 1970s, with the onset of the Whitlam government and new thinking, high rises were out and satellite suburbs and regional towns were in. (The decentralised, cross-border conurbation of Albury-Wodonga was referred to as ‘Whitlamabad’.) The Housing Commission focused on low-rise estates. These, too, would feed social problems, as well as public land scandals and corruption.

Jeffrey Smart, Study for Housing Project No. 84

Despite this shift in the focus of public housing construction, the investment in high rises had already been sunk – and the towers would remain on our cities’ horizons for the next six decades. As time goes by, the building stock continues to deteriorate; the costs of repairs and maintenance have increased, as have power and running costs, and the public owners have gone from delivering surpluses to deficits.

In 2017, Treasurer Scott Morrison criticised the meagre supply of housing delivered by state-housing agencies. His answer was a ‘housing bond aggregator’ – the Affordable Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) – designed to source lower-interest capital from the debt market, for long-term loans to non-profit community housing providers.

In July of that same year, Morrison disparaged the national affordable housing agreement as a ‘one-way ATM’ that had failed to boost housing supply. He told The Australian that the federal government was considering unilateral action, including removing tax disincentives for retirees to downsize their homes, and allowing first-home buyers access to their superannuation to enter the housing market. Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar followed up later that year with the National Housing Guarantee, to de-risk investment by super funds, insurance companies and others in social and affordable housing.

Social housing is ideal for super funds and other investors wanting a steady, long-term return. Initiatives that unlock and encourage this investment are welcome – but they don’t replace the desperate need for more direct and substantial public investment in social housing. Apart from a one-off, post-GFC boost, such investment has been on a downward slope for decades.

Other countries rose above political and ideological differences to address poverty and make bigger investments in social housing: in 2018, housing providers with a social purpose accounted for ‘20-31% of all house building in the UK, Finland, France and Austria, and much more in some Asian countries such as Singapore’. Innovative revolving funds, plus requiring new housing developments to include a portion of social housing, have helped keep social housing levels up elsewhere.

The rate of homelessness is on the rise in Australia and we have more people than ever in social housing – and yet, as Productivity Commission data show, there has been a fall in the number of public housing dwellings, from around 362,000 in 1996-97 to 316,000 in 2017-18. In July 2019, new federal homelessness minister Luke Howarth tried to reframe Australia’s housing problems: ‘I want to put a positive spin on it as well and not just say Australia’s in a housing crisis when it affects a very, very small percentage of the population.’

The Commonwealth government recently announced the uncapped Homebuilder program to help stimulate the economy out of the COVID-induced recession. However, the government has been roundly criticised for overlooking public housing.

Investing in public housing during a pandemic is a no-brainer. New public housing can be tailored for people’s specific needs, and it can deliver increased liveability, such as better heating and cooling – crucial in a time of climate change. New public housing can also be designed in line with the COVID-19 ‘new normal’ in mind.

Artist Jeffery Smart, known for the playful allusions and private jokes in his precisionist depictions of built landscapes, featured an inner-urban public housing tower in his 1970 ‘Study for Housing Project No. 84’. Also depicted in films, on T-shirts and in underground art, our public housing high rises have become emblems of modern life.

Right now, the towers are iconic in a different way. Unsustainable, unsafe, vertical cruise ships, docked and locked in the inner north of Melbourne. In the COVID-19 crisis, the short-term lockdowns have revealed a long-term risk – to our health, our economy and our society. It’s time for an urgent national conversation at national cabinet on how we use the COVID-19 response and the post-COVID economic recovery to ‘build back better’ with smart, efficient, accessible and liveable publicly funded social housing.

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